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Six Weeks of Vacation Food

23 Aug

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From the second week of July until late Monday night, I was not at home. First I was at the beach for a long weekend with my family, and then for the following five weeks I was living in San Francisco with my son. It was interesting to become semi-settled into a different city, knowing all the while that there was a definite end date to our tenure. While some things about life became markedly different (Exploratorium rather than OMSI, Muni rather than TriMet, Academy of Sciences rather than…nothing at all, because both the Academy of Sciences and its home of Golden Gate Park have absolutely no counterparts in the city of Portland), others stayed remarkably similar. I still cooked most of our meals at home, I still grocery shopped for local produce whenever possible, and I still tried to work a small treat of some sort into our daily lives.

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Both San Francisco and Portland are known for being rather food-centric cities, and for good reason. The offerings of both cities are phenomenal, and there are countless places where one can find a meal or snack that will send a person absolutely reeling with pleasure. I will not even begin to touch on the issue of which city offers better food than the other, because pitting one city against the other is a rather boring and useless exercise. Instead, let’s talk about some great food you can eat while in San Francisco, and some great food you can make while on vacation in any city of your choice.

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Our extended stay in San Francisco wasn’t simply one long and depraved blur of Miette eclairs, Bi-Rite ice cream, and Chinese bakery poundcake. One of the best places my son and I discovered in San Francisco was a little café on Clement St. called Bunn Mi that made the best bahn mi sandwiches I have ever eaten, and I am no stranger to the delight of the bahn mi. My favorite bahn mi featured roasted 5 spice chicken, chicken pate, a mountain of pickled vegetables, and a sprinkling of fresh herbs. All this for only $4.50, and it’s enough food to last for two lunches (that is, if you are me, and you are eminently vigilant about always saving a bit of room for dessert).

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My son was partial to Bunn Mi’s absolutely enormous bowls of pho, with long strings of perfect noodles, a huge plate of BBQ pork on the side, and a great selection of fresh herbs and vegetables to add in (including some sliced chiles, which he did not eat, but I managed to take care of them for him by tucking them into my sandwich, therefore bumping me up to genius level in the world of sandwich artistry).

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Of course, there were many treats, and many stops were made at Tartine for some favorite pastries, including this beautiful banana cream tart, replete with pastry cream, a swipe of caramel, and a slip of chocolate. I am not even going to pretend that I didn’t eat this entire dessert, nor will I pretend that its status as a mini-tart somehow rendered it smallish or reasonable for a single person to consume. I ate the whole thing all by myself. Because I am a grown up, and I can totally do stuff like that. I also ate cake for dinner one night, because, like I said: grown up.

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While we are speaking of cake, it would be terrible of me to not mention the cake my husband (who joined us for the last two weeks of our trip) and I bought for our son’s seventh birthday, celebrated during our time away. This cake hails from Schubert’s Bakery, a 100+ year-old German bakery that also happens to be located on Clement Street, and also happens to be one of my new favorite places. This beauty features a base of chocolate cake topped with a solid three inches of creamy chocolate mousse that is draped with chocolate ganache and garnished with chocolate shavings. If you love chocolate, as my son does, you will dance with happiness over this cake. (The baseball candles did not come from the bakery—they were a delightful gift sent from Portland). It took three adults and one child four days to finish this cake. To call it potent would be a ridiculous understatement.

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In years past, we have always chosen to rent a flat while on trips, but this year we were able to arrange two house swaps with two different households in San Francisco, allowing us to live rent-free during our entire stay. There are numerous benefits to staying in a house or a flat rather than a hotel room, the main one being that having a kitchen at one’s disposal allows for a much more pleasant long-term eating situation. While I enjoy eating out, having to rely on restaurants for all three meals, every single day, can become an unpleasant chore. Being able to wake up, take a shower, then saunter into the kitchen to make a pot of coffee and a simple breakfast is a true delight while on vacation.

My favorite simple breakfast involves what my son has taken to calling “runny egg toast,” a name that, when seen in print, actually sounds sort of unappealing. I assure you, however, it is anything but, and, when topped with slices of fresh tomato and a generous grind of black pepper, it’s just about perfect. You start by tearing a hunk out of the middle of a slice of crusty bread, then sautéing the bread in a bit of olive oil. When the underside of the bread is touched with brown, turn the bread over, turn down the flame, crack an egg into the hole, then cover the cooking pan with a lid until the white of the egg is cooked through and the yolk is still soft. Plate the bread-with-egg, top with slices of ripe tomato (and, if you have some, a few pieces of freshly torn basil), then sprinkle with sea salt and black pepper.

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Another staple vacation dinner is pasta and broccoli in a lemon butter sauce, a dish that requires easy to find ingredients and produces enough leftovers to last through a couple of lunches. I have also taken to making roasted vegetable tacos, a dish that is anything but authentically Mexican, but it is delicious and filling so I make no apologies for its constant presence on our dinner table. A cinch to make, one only needs to find a selection of favorite vegetables to roast (we often go with peppers, onions, and cauliflower—like I said, not at all authentic), then those vegetables get nestled into warm tortillas with a bit of cheese, a drizzle of salsa, and a few slices of avocado and leaves of spinach or lettuce tucked in here and there.

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Of course, we also came across this in San Francisco, because this is what happens when your city’s baseball team wins two World Series in three years.

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I know I said I was not going to draw comparisons, but, Portland, you are killing me with your lack of interest in major league baseball. Of course, you are also the unofficial skateboarding capital of the world, so I can’t be all that mad at you. San Francisco may have AT&T Park, but Portland has the Burnside Project, perhaps the most major factor in keeping the scales of my heart from tipping south towards San Francisco Bay.

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Last Year: Sweet Potato and Cauliflower Samosas in Phyllo and Brown Sugar Nectarine Ice Cream

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Best Food to Pack on a Road Trip

23 Jul

Many people may find this to be an admission of pure insanity, but I like a long road trip. That’s not the insane part, though. I like a long road trip with my kid.

Perhaps it is because, for the first year or so of his life, my kid hated riding in the car. Most people I know swore by putting their baby in his or her car seat and driving around in order to silence their kid’s fussing or screaming, but my kid had the exact opposite reaction to riding in a car. Whereas he would start out a car journey in complete calmness, by about 30 seconds in he would start fussing, then crying, then screaming in total agony. The whole time, I might add. The screaming wouldn’t stop until the journey came to a stop. Because of this, my husband and I, for the first year of our kid’s life, never went anywhere in the car. The only traveling our kid did was via a stroller or Baby Bjorn. Since it was impossible to make trips to the coast or the mountains via stroller, I think we’re still, all these years later, making up for lost trips. Because now? My kid is a champion road-tripper.

We’ve become pretty adept at it, too. We’ve learned which east and west-bound routes serve us best, which rest stops along I-5 have the most pleasant surroundings (I highly recommend the Randolph C. Collier Rest Area in Northern California for both lovely scenery and unsurpassed cleanliness), and most importantly, what types of foods to pack that will bring us not only energy, but also pleasure.

I try to pack a good variety of foods for our trips, and I try to arrange them into two categories: meals and snacks. Depending on how long our road trip will be, I might end up packing two meals and a handful of snacks, or sometimes just a good amount of snack foods.

For meals, I find it difficult to go wrong with a nice sandwich, packed with crisp vegetables and a nice slip of meat or cheese (or both). For our recent road trip to Eastern Oregon, I packed individual sandwiches on little ciabatta rolls (in the past, I have made these black bread rolls for sandwiches and, man, were they good). Much like with this stuffed picnic sandwich (which is also a great item to pack on a road trip), I like to tear a bunch of the bready middle out of the center of each roll, allowing for a tidier nest in which to nestle in your chosen sandwich fillings. If you are going to be forced to actually eat your meal in the car while driving, this also makes for a much tighter sandwich packet that is easier to contain. For the sake of ease, you can make make your sandwiches the night before you leave, wrap them up, then just toss them into a small cooler on the morning of your trip.

I have also had good success rolling some of these Indian turkey burgers into a tortilla with chunks of cucumber and strips of lettuce. If you are horrified by the idea of mixing Indian food with a tortilla, just close your eyes (but not if you are driving) and pretend that the tortilla is a chapati and you’ll be fine.

For a simpler spread, sometimes I just fill one bag with a selection of crackers, another with squares of sharp cheddar, and call it good. These are great with sliced vegetables while picnicking, or, if you’re traveling with other people, they can be stacked up and handed to you as you drive. For a different riff on this idea, try slices of sharp cheddar piled on top of slices of this no-knead apple bread, or perhaps this no-knead flatbread.

For snacks, I tend to lean heavily in the direction of things that are satisfying without being heavy or sweet. These granola bars are a huge hit on road trips. Lately I have taken to baking the granola bars in a 9” by 13” pan and baking them for a slightly shorter amount of time. This makes for a crisper, flatter granola bar that is great for a little snack while hiking or on the road.

I also like to make my own trail mix out of a cup each of roasted almonds and pecans, sometimes pumpkin seeds, and then a handful of various dried fruits (dried cherries, dried cranberries, and chopped up dried apricots are all good additions). I used to also add a handful of dark chocolate chips, but they tended to get a little messy after being tossed around in a warm car (also, my kid would pick out all the chocolate chips and then launch into a chocolate-fueled frenzy, which is something you want to avoid while trapped in a moving vehicle).

Fruits and vegetables are also important snacks. I have learned that the less juicy the fruit, the better. This means no peaches, nectarines, pineapple slices, or watermelon. Better choices can be found in grapes, blueberries, raspberries, sliced apples, or even sliced peaches and nectarines (so long as they can be eaten without being dropped because, oh, man, how unpleasant is it to accidentally sit on a peach slice in a hot car?). Basically, choose fruits that are unencumbered by pits or seeds, since you don’t want to have to deal with those things while driving.

If you don’t have room for fruit, or you don’t want to deal with it, you can always opt for a nice selection of fruit leather.

As for vegetables, baby carrots are standard for our trips, but blanched green beans are another crisp, delightful option. Sliced bell peppers and sliced cucumbers are also nice to have on hand, and they pair wonderfully with the aforementioned cheese and crackers.

And, because I am me, I can’t have a road trip without a little treat. These Mexican chocolate zucchini muffins are a delightful thing to have on hand, and their low sugar content won’t make you feel crazy while you sit in a car for several hours after eating them. We also took this tangerine zucchini bread on a recent trip, and it was great to have on hand for a little something sweet, yet not cloyingly so. The same goes for these carrot muffins, another pleasing, not-to-sweet treat.

We’re gearing up to take our annual summer trip to San Francisco, and you can bet that a wide variety of these foods will be coming along with us. Not to hammer in my previous mention of suspected insanity, but the drive is 12 hours long—each way—so the food we pack can make or break our enjoyment of the drive. It also helps that, without fail, we always hit a Dairy Queen as a special treat while driving through the hottest parts of the state. A small dipped cone (vanilla ice cream, chocolate dip) can perform near-magical  wonders in the heat.

Last Year: Grilled Peaches and Sausages with Almond Herb Bulgur

Gelato vs. Ice Cream, the Battle in Which There Are No Losers

20 Aug

As a quick side note concerning last month’s annual trek to San Francisco, it bears sharing that we engaged in a voracious debate concerning which icy treat was more favorable: ice cream or gelato.

St. James Whiskey gelato, topped with a scoop of apricot sorbetto, from Naia in North Beach

In reality, there are very few properties that separate gelato from ice cream.  Both are icy treats made from milk and cream, both are churned while freezing, and both can be served via cone or cup.  The main differences between gelato and ice cream lie in three areas: the ratio of milk to cream contained in each (gelato contains less cream, more milk, resulting in a marginally lower fat product with a less heavy taste), the amount of air contained within each (gelato is churned more slowly than ice cream, which allows less air to be incorporated into the mix and makes for a denser end product), and the temperature at which each item is served (gelato is served at a temperature slightly above freezing, ice cream is served frozen).

Chocolate ice cream from Bi-Rite Creamery in the Misson

Facts sorted and items sampled, we considered our tastings.  Bi-Rite Creamery, by making its ice cream in very small batches, maintains a virtue similar to that of most gelato makers (okay, so I recant my above statement about there being three main differences between gelato and ice cream–there are actually four main differences, that being that gelato is meant to be made in very small batches, and ice cream, unless made at home or at an artisanal ice cream shop like Bi-Rite Creamery, is generally not).  Both Naia and Bi-Rite Creamery offer a selection of sorbets, and both places excel at making delicious, unique flavors of their product (I would have taken a picture of the balsamic strawberry ice cream, salted caramel ice cream, and brown sugar ice cream with a ginger caramel swirl that were consumed during this sampling of icy treats,  but I was, delightfully, too busy tasting them to even think about my camera).

In the end, ice cream and gelato were declared dual winners in the unofficial competition.  Not only were we unable to choose a winner between the two frozen delights, but we were unwilling.  To declare one better over the other seemed an almost ridiculous task, especially when, as evidenced below, we found it virtually impossible to register a single complaint about either.

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